NICK CHEUNG'S PAST life in the police force suggests that film sets shouldn't pose him too many problems, physically or mentally. But hear the actor talk about the exertions needed to prepare for his role in last year's box-office smash Unbeatable and you'll be left wondering whether or not the 46-year-old might at this stage of his acclaimed career be hankering for a somewhat quieter life.
Months of intensive mixed-martial-arts and Thai-boxing training cut Cheung's already slender physique right down to the bone – almost. And when we catch up on the sidelines of last month's Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) card in Macau, he's carrying the air of a man who these days would much rather be watching the mesmerising brutality of the sport from the safety of his seat. “I'm attracted to physical roles because they're a challenge,” the actor reveals. “But the work I had to put in to prepare for Unbeatable was like nothing I'd experienced before. It was a great experience, but not something I'd want to do again.”
And who could blame him? The posters for that film reveal a man looking half his age – or less. Cheung's role has justifiably garnered him accolades and a Hong Kong Film Award (HKFA) nomination for Best Actor (and with an estimated HK$44.63 million in takings, the film was declared Hong Kong's box office champ in 2013). But it's hard not to wonder why cinema here keeps returning to its old guard when it comes to action, regardless of how talented they are and what box-office coin they can assure.
Check out the line-up at this year's HKFAs. Forget, for the moment, the illusion that creativity in Hong Kong cinema ever outweighs the desire for cold hard cash. We have a nomination list dominated by two films – The Grandmaster and Ip Man: The Final Fight – about the same man, who's been featured in five films and two TV series films over the past six years. And another – Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons – retells a story written more than 400 years ago, and was first brought to the screen in 1927.
More revealing about how thin the action ranks have become is the fact that for Best Actor we have – starring in extremely physical roles – the 51-year-old Tony Leung's take on the legendary martial artist Ip Man facing off against fellow 51-year-old Anthony Wong's version of the same man (admittedly at a later stage of his life). Then there's Cheung, the 43-year-old Louis Koo for his role in the thriller The White Storm, and 50-year-old Lau Ching-wan, again for The White Storm.
Although the likes of Jackie Chan and the great Sammo Hung are still mixing it with the best of them at ages 59 and 62 respectively, who would begrudge any of this cast a few more rom-coms, and perhaps a casual guest appearance doing voice work in an animated feature or two?
Turns out, that's where Cheung is headed, in the short term at least.
“In recent years most of my films have been cop flicks,” he says. “So I really hope I can now take on films of different genres and play different roles. One example is the film I'm doing at the moment. It's a romantic comedy, which also features Sammi Cheng. This is a new experience for me and I hope to explore this genre more.”
Cheung worked for four years as a policeman before a lack of opportunities for advancement saw him join a film production company. That led to bit parts in the likes of Raped by an Angel (1993), before it became apparent that his talents warranted much bigger billing.
His career since has been a case study in how an actor can play to his strengths as he alternates between hard-case nutter (Election) and ageing everyman (Unbeatable).
Cheung puts the fact that many of his films have been commercial successes down to pure economics. Faced with a dwindling domestic audience, Hong Kong film-makers have necessarily leant heavily on proven formulas (see Ip Man, above).
“The majority of my work has been in action films,” says Cheung. “But I still think many Hong Kong films are actually very creative. The genres may be more or less the same, but a wide variety of films have been produced, thanks to differences in the story background, characters, style and perspective of directors.
“As long as Hong Kong films are of good quality, the audience will be able to appreciate them and recognise the efforts of the actors and the production people.”
Unbeatable is a case in point. Director Dante Lam taps into the growing global fascination with mixed martial arts (the UFC claims it's the fastest-growing sport in the world) but lends to it a story that makes it feel purely Asian. Cheung's down-and-outer is looking for redemption and spurred on by dreams of friendship and family.
That he rises to all the demands the role brings stands as a testament to his dedication to his craft. And he's vowed to continue exploring his profession – no matter how much some aspects of the work may hurt.
“I love acting, because I can experience different kinds of life and different ways of thinking,” he says. “When I made Unbeatable, I really got into the role. I thought like a boxer, worked on getting the facial expressions and body language of a boxer. I felt like I was a boxer. So different roles bring on different challenges. It takes time to understand the roles and I love this kind of challenge. And I'll continue to enjoy and be inspired by the process in every one of my films.”